6 Dec 2022

Willie Jackson gives partial apology over public media merger interview

7:18 pm on 6 December 2022
Labour MP Willie Jackson

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Minister of Broadcasting Willie Jackson says his recent interview about the RNZ-TVNZ merger was a mistake, but is downplaying concerns as coming largely from the media.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also had to clarify her comments on the topic, saying her claims RNZ could "collapse" were not accurate.

Jackson got defensive when he appeared on TVNZ's Q+A with Jack Tame on Sunday to speak about the government's proposal to combine RNZ and TVNZ into one entity.

When questioned over the editorial independence of the new entity and the transparency of the establishment board, he repeatedly resorted to questioning the motives and bias of Tame and TVNZ, and criticising the questions asked of him.

This was roundly criticised in the media, and during the weekly post-Cabinet media briefing yesterday Ardern said she had spoken to Jackson about his handling of the interview - despite not having seen the full exchange.

"Some have taken issue with some of the comments, I do not believe that's what the minister was trying to do or say, but I can see how people may have taken issue with some of them," she said at the time.

Jackson today admitted the interview was a "misstep" and he regretted doing it, but he continued to characterise the criticism over it as coming from the media.

"I suppose in retrospect I probably regret the interview given it hasn't exactly been five-star reviews, has it ... I'm disappointed with the response from the media, but I understand the trepidation in terms of the Bill," he said.

"Clearly given the response from media it was a misstep. So, you know, it wasn't one of my greatest interviews - a lot of our supporters I have to say really enjoyed the interview, there's a totally different view from supporters - but I accept what some of the media are saying."

He suggested it was a one-off.

"It could've been better, it could've been clearer, and if there was any inference in terms of editorial interference I just want media to rest assured that's a real primary part of the legislation ... I don't think we should get hysterical over one interview that probably didn't go too well.

"Sorry about that one interview, it was just one interview."

The problem was one of style, he said.

"I have a bit of a relationship with Jack Tame and I've known him for a few years, we have a bit of fun and that's just part of the jousting in an interview and I don't think Jack took it too badly or anything ... I can see that the media took it badly.

"The reality is I've got a certain style, it works most of the time, it obviously didn't go too well on the Sunday."

He also suggested the legislation enjoyed widespread support, despite public polling by Curia suggesting just 22 percent of the public supported it.

"We had 900 submissions, 60-70 percent supported the principle of it, but I accept that the media is probably 90-95 percent against the entity. I accept that, I've seen what they've said, I've heard what they've said, and I'll try and do better next time Jack Tame interviews me."

He said if he had been involved in the project from the start, he would not have changed the model - saying he had confidence in the work done by his predecessors Clare Curran and Kris Faafoi - one of whom was stripped of the portfolio, the other having started a lobbying firm.

"They're fine people those two ... I've got a lot of time for Clare, and Faffs is doing well," he said.

"Look, change is always hard, particularly for journalists who've been doing things one way, and I urge people to have a look at the legislation again. The principle of it is based on having a strong New Zealand identity, a strong national public broadcaster."

He said he "absolutely" understood editorial independence.

"Editorial independence is incredibly important and it's one of the main features of this bill, so absolutely there's no intention to interfere in terms of anything with regards to the new entity."

The current administration's intention is, however, no guarantee the legislation is sufficient to protect editorial independence - another concern Jackson failed to provide assurances over in his Q+A interview.

Questioned by National's Broadcasting spokesperson Melissa Lee in Parliament this afternoon, he highlighted the relevant section 15 of the Bill:

The clause on editorial independence in the ANZPM public media entity legislation. The bill is currently going through the select committee process.

Photo: NZ Government

He went on to reject Lee's question over whether his Q+A interview had breached a similar provision in the current TVNZ legislation.

Ardern clarifies claims of RNZ 'collapse'

Ardern had to make her own clarifications after speaking to the AM Show yesterday, when she claimed the public broadcaster - funded entirely by the government on a budget of about $48m a year - was at risk of collapsing without the merger.

She today told reporters she had been referring to declining listenership and concern over funding levels, and agreed a collapse would not happen.

"We're not going to see that occur, but nor do we want to see listenership decline. So it's one thing to keep funding levels up but you want to make sure that they're equipped but also reaching people where they are.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"We know that traditional forms of viewership are changing, that listenership is changing, we've seen a massive increase in New Zealanders accessing their information or their news or their entertainment from streaming services. How do we make sure that those traditional forms of media that do rely on government funding actually have the ability to reach New Zealanders in different places?"

"Radio New Zealand want to expand ways that they are reaching people through, for instance, online forms. Now, when you start going into the space where you're starting to produce video content, then you start asking the question over whether we're using the resources across public broadcasting efficiently given we already of course have those resources within TVNZ."

Jackson echoed that position.

"We have to keep providing information and we'll continue to do that. We've made it very clear that the media landscape has changed, we've made it very clear that we want to invest in TVNZ and RNZ - and them coming together is a better way going forward in terms of this country."

He said he had made the purpose of the project "very clear several times" including in his interview with Tame.

"We have to future-proof going forward, that's the key to this merger and it's about everyone."

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